Wednesday, 26 December 2012

GENESIS: Duke


(#225: 5 April 1980, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Behind The Lines/Duchess/Guide Vocal/Man Of Our Times/Misunderstanding/Heathaze/Turn It On Again/Alone Tonight/Cul-De-Sac/Please Don’t Ask/Duke’s Travels/Duke’s End

Duke was the fourth number one album in less than a year to be recorded at Polar Studios in Stockholm, and has more than a few things in common with Abba; the treated piano introduction to “Heathaze,” for example, not to mention the general lyrical theme of things and people coming apart and the possible emotional correspondence between “The King Has Lost His Crown” and “Cul-De-Sac.”

But where Abba were – for now – content to keep their countenance and pretend that everything was still holding together, Duke presents us with the uncomfortable picture of a band at war with itself. That may be a slight exaggeration in some aspects, but I recall that this was, after the Pretenders’ debut album, the first number one record to say explicitly “this is the eighties” from its sleeve design inward. It didn’t really feel like a seventies hangover – even though, delving into its fabric, that in part is exactly what it was – but my feeling is that, like so many artists around them in this tale, including Johnny Mathis, the group had come to the point where they realised that the Old Games just wouldn’t work anymore.

What Old Games? My understanding of Genesis in the seventies was based on the efforts of a close friend of mine at school who was mad about the band, in both Peter Gabriel and post-Gabriel incarnations, and was keen to get me interested in them. I remember borrowing quite a lot of albums from him (I gave them back), catching things like “The Knife” and “Supper’s Ready” on Alan Freeman’s Radio 1 Saturday Rock Show, and, I have to say, not really getting “it.” I grasped what Gabriel was trying to do and achieve, and that “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe),” their first hit single, which featured both Gabriel and Phil Collins on lead vocals, was a disturbing thing indeed, like Traffic’s “Hole In My Shoe” having been fed a touch too much Mandrax.

That aside, however, I admired the musical ingenuity of the group’s work without finding much to engage me in their music. They seemed to me the most conservative of prog-rockers, lacking the sleight-of-hand shuffles of King Crimson or the numbing breakthroughs achieved by their older and smarter brothers Van Der Graaf Generator (Peter Hammill as a more forthright Peter Gabriel who didn’t need to hide behind any mask; see 1974’s exacting The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage for evidence). When external factors were allowed to comment, e.g. Brian Eno on The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (easily the Gabriel Genesis’ best and most consistent work), the music became more urgent and driven, as much as it was more greatly tempted to hide itself away.

But put yourself in the shoes of late seventies Genesis; at the height of your initial acclaim, your frontman quits to go solo – and, as if to rub some sort of beneficent salt into the wound, becomes hugely successful almost immediately. You persist with two nice but directionless albums (A Trick Of The Tail, Wind And Wuthering) before your guitarist also decides to take himself elsewhere, having correctly assumed that there wasn’t much left for him to do in the band as it was. So there are three of you left, and you sense all this change happening around you, and probably you already know that the game might shortly be up if you don’t change it, drastically.

So you put out a not-quite-pop/not-quite-prog album bearing a glumly knowing title and somehow wangle a proper top ten hit single out of it, if little else – I never thought much of “Follow You, Follow Me” but the same album includes the great “Many Too Many,” a song encapsulating a time of adolescent sadness; I will always associate it with the train going from Uddingston into Glasgow after the end of the school year, me off to whatever Saturday or summer job I was doing, gazing at Kylepark retreating into nothing on the other side of whatever tributary of the Clyde crossed it, knowing that, somehow, something, a chapter of my life, had ended. It was also not a little fearful, and my fears turned out to be grounded; when I went back for the start of fourth year in August, the same people were there, but they weren’t the same people – what I mean is, other priorities had come to the fore, including the increasingly anxious question of how we were going to earn a living once we’d left school; what was going to become of us. In other words, the time for fun was over, the time for knuckling down to “O” Grades, etc., had begun.

But anyway, somehow you find yourself in late 1979, a year about to become “late”; two of you have put out well-crafted, reasonably-received solo albums and the third guy took time out of the group to try to save his first marriage (as well as to do other things; Collins, a veteran of Cale, Eno and Brand X sessions, double-drummed in an expanded edition of John Stevens’ SME at the 1979 Camden Jazz Festival alongside the missing link, John Martyn on guitar, and went on to produce and play on Martyn’s grimly frank divorce-themed 1980 album Grace And Danger, which could properly have been retitled The Dark Side Of The Duke).

You get back together and realise that, although you still have a hankering for the old regressive progressive days, you really have no choice but to sit down and come up with “songs” if you’re going to survive. And although I really have no idea why they decided to call the album Duke – or entitle one of its songs “Duchess” – the album, the group’s tenth in total, seems to have been specifically designed to resemble its nine predecessors as little as possible. Recorded in Sweden, produced by an American (David Hentschel) and with a comparatively minimalist, cartoon-like sleeve design by a Frenchman – Lionel Koechlin, whose “Albert” character is the large, enigmatic figure pursuing, or being pursued around, the sleeve – and third form handwritten lyrics, Duke was designed to look like a drastic break from the group’s ornate rococo-strewn past.

Whether it was a real break remains debatable. Like many others – and millions of people bought this record without necessarily knowing anything about Genesis or their previous form – I was drawn to Duke by its single, “Turn It On Again,” which sounded so unlike “Genesis” as to squash “Follow You, Follow Me” under an unceremonial steamroller. Brilliantly balancing residual prog tendencies – the 13/4, 4/4, 9/4 tempo leaps – with a genuine sense of The Modern (Collins’ midsong count-in suggesting at least some awareness of “Being Boiled”), “Turn It On Again,” though a group composition with lyrics by Mike Rutherford, demonstrates why Collins had been so keen to play (though didn’t actually play) on Bowie’s Low; it is the group’s “Sound And Vision,” bending the rules of AoR to present a strikingly similar picture of alienation. Like Bowie, Collins is alone in his room, and shut off from the world, with only a TV and radio for company; because he allows himself no distractions, he starts to regard the faces on his screen as “friends,” and even fancies that he falls in love with at least one of them. “Can’t you do anything for me?” asks Collins. “Can I touch you for a while?” Not only “Sound And Vision,” but also Scott Walker’s “Time Operator”; the snazzy prog operative, now arrived at a dead end, expiring in exile, trying out his chat-up lines on people who don’t respond. Had the song been written and recorded now, they could have substituted Facebook for TV without too much need for scene-shifting. And, in the middle of this submerging, subhuman whirlpool, is the “I” of Collins: “I…I…GET so lonely when she’s not there!”

(Compare with Brian Wilson’s “But I can’t help how I act when she’s not here with me” from “You Still Believe In Me” nearly a decade and a half earlier…)

All this having been said, though, “Turn It On Again” was part of a semi-disguised suite which runs, for the most part unassumingly, throughout the record; they had another “Supper’s Ready” ready and knew it, but also knew if anyone was going to take notice, they’d have to chop the sequences up and distribute them readily on the album. Actually, the first three parts, which are interlinked and segued, make up the record’s beginning; then, after “Turn It On Again,” the “suite,” as such, would conclude with the largely instrumental “Duke’s…” sections (and indeed this is how they performed the songs on stage for quite some time afterwards).

So the “changes” seen here may have been for the most part cosmetic ones only. But I don’t think Duke is an attempt by some old prog-rockers to sneak in some mouldy old seventies prog-rock through the back door; quite the reverse, in fact – they know they are dragging some of their past into the eighties with them but are fighting the temptation to cling to it. Hence “Behind The Lines” begins with all sorts of bright Rick Wakeman-ish keyboard fanfares and clattering drum figures; a keen ear can spot the skeleton of “Sussudio” struggling to get through, and when Collins begins to sing (“I held the book so tightly in my hands…”), the listener is thrust straight into what will become the eighties mainstream, with Collins as the decade’s Rod Stewart figure, a questionable constant which will hold out over the entire span.

If the song sounds and feels familiar it’s because Collins would go on to rework it for Face Value, and indeed lyrically it focuses on the stock Collins theme of two people being rendered apart, and how can we repair this, make it better again? Or, if you like, Save Our Marriage. Then the music goes, without a break, into “Duchess” and Collins’ gloomy Roland CR-78 drum machine patterns, interacting with live drumming thunderstorms, like shackles springing to fatal life, go on for nearly two-and-a-half minutes before the “song” begins. Like Scott Walker’s “Duchess” the song considers a lady who once was great and is now in hate-filled decline; unlike the Scott song, however, there’s not much in the way of empathy or identification (no “I’m lying, she’s crying” climax; Walker performs the song as a kind of identical twin to the Pretenders’ “Lovers Of Today,” and wouldn’t Chrissie and the guys have made a fine job of “Get Behind Me”?), much more in the way of self-flagellation masquerading as finger-pointing ticking-off; like several other songs on Duke, you get the inescapable feeling that Collins is singing about the possible fate of his own group, a sense amplified by the brief, morose “Guide Vocal” where a ghost intones “I am the one who guided you this far” before concluding “You’re on your own until the end…/Take what’s yours and be damned.” Is this a ghost, or an elephant in Genesis’ sitting room? Is it the “ghost” of Peter Gabriel?

After that, the seguing disappears (for awhile) and we get Rutherford’s obscurely-defined “Man Of Our Times” – skilful rock with some air of foreboding – and then Collins’ “Misunderstanding,” a mutated doo-wop ballad which, in form and subject matter, could rightly have been retitled “Hopelessly Devoted To You”; she doesn’t turn up to meet him, he goes crazy and ends up doing a bit of stalking, only to find, inevitably, that she’s with someone else (“I still don’t believe it!/He was just leaving!”). You get both the singer’s bewilderment and something of an understanding as to why she might have been uncomfortable staying with him. But oh no, it must be a misunderstanding, mustn’t grumble…and, again, the metaphor of an abandoned rock group, cast aside for a shinier and newer model, makes itself subtly apparent.

When not talking about men and women, Duke tends, awkwardly, to deal with Big Matters; awkwardly in that I have no usable idea what “Man Of Our Times” might be about. Tony Banks’ “Heathaze” is, as far as I know, the first song in this tale to deal with the subject of global warming, and although it builds up nicely and logically enough, there’s nothing in Collins’ vocal or the group’s performance to suggest that this might be the End of Everything; ozone depletion is treated as a mild irritant, and the lyrics, as with “Cul-De-Sac,” are so generalised and unwilling to pin any specific thing or person down that empathy just doesn’t come into it. “Cul-De-Sac” itself is a long, bombastic workout which may be about a tyrant waiting to be deposed, or a rebellious crowd who at the last moment may or may not have the tables turned on them – the deliberately obfuscatory lyrics do anything but help in this regard – or maybe it’s just another metaphor about Old Genesis limping towards extinction. Here, as generally on the album, Banks’ 1975 keyboard kit is a major irritant; instantly dated, getting in the way of whatever future the band, and specifically Collins, whose drumming cannot be faulted throughout, are trying to create for themselves (and, getting back to Walker, it is remarkable from recent listening how Scott 4 contains within its 32 minutes and 26 seconds the seeds of so many other things to succeed it; “The Old Man’s Back Again” could, as Lena pointed out, have been done by the Four Tops, with its throaty, staccato lead vocal and James Jamerson-like bass, most likely played by Walker himself, and we’re nowhere near “Loco In Acapulco” yet. Where Genesis on Duke do sometimes approach Scott’s doompit – “And now that the job is almost done/Maybe some escape? No. Not even ONE” – Walker’s crucial person-specific narratives make the leap Genesis can’t quite bring themselves to carry off. And, turning to Bish Bosch, what is “The Day The ‘Conducator’ Died” if not the belated sequel to “The Old Man’s Back Again,” the twisted “Get Behind Me” fuzzy lead guitar intact?).

“Alone Tonight” is written by Rutherford and “Please Don’t Ask” by Collins but the effect is the same; we already note how the songs, even the group compositions, appear to be based around Collins’ pivotal drumming (this was picked up by that eximious music critic, Patrick Bateman, in his peerless one-page summary of Duke from twenty or so years ago) but now Duke is essentially turning, or being turned, into a Collins solo record, full of divorce-centred moping. His own “Please Don’t Ask” at least acknowledges the existence of other people; she’s split and taken the kids with her, they meet up and he is prepared to take her back for the sake of “my boy” (“I hope he’s as good as gold”) but he’s not sure whether he still loves her; he makes some stupid throwaway comments which unsettle rather than reassure his ex (“Oh, you’ve lost weight, I can see, your hair looks nice…”). He’s willing to try again, but not particularly on behalf of her or him. But there is the incipient glint of the “Jesus, Phil, do you think you’re the only person on the planet with problems?” tendency.

After that, the album concludes with the long “Duke’s Travels/Duke’s End” sequence, which attempts to sum the record up. There is a lengthy and moderately startling opening section of free-form prepared piano and thunder-like percussion, almost as though the components of the introduction to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” (another Pet Sounds comparison point there) had been dissembled and nobody knew quite how to put it together again. Then, eventually, we get into a full-blooded 1971 prog workout, complete with multiple time changes and over-florid keyboard flurries, as though they had decided: shit, let’s go for it one last time before it’s wiped out forever.

Just as it’s about to turn into Chick Corea’s The Leprechaun, however, about six minutes in, a doomy, robotic, deep-throated Collins vocal steals back in, like the ghost of Gabriel, to reiterate the words of “Guide Vocal,” though this time with much more anger (“Take what’s YOURS and be DAMNED!”). Then, like a life flashing back before the eyes of the twentieth floor jumper, the original “Behind The Lines” theme returns, to be followed by what can only be described as a punk thrash through the “Turn It On Again” riff – straight 4/4, plenty of distortion. It sounds like the band are trying to destroy themselves, and at album’s end, they succeed in blowing themselves up. It’s the eighties; if you could feel our pain you’d be better able to glimpse the sun. Enough people said “Maybe we could work this time” to get them to number one, principally on mutual trust, for quite some time after 1980.

The “elephant”’s entrance – and, possibly, response - will not be far behind in coming. Is that him at the front, with his back to us, staring at what might yet become the sun?

1 comment:

Tom Albrighton said...

Diligent and detailed as always – and heroically committed, given that it sounds like you didn’t enjoy the record much.

Based on the intro to ‘Firth of Fifth’, I would say that Tony Banks is one of the most technically accomplished rock keyboardists ever. I wonder what he made of the scene in 1980, with its two-finger synth basslines and sparse, metallic soundscapes. All that wintry post-punk stuff clearly wasn’t going away; the snow falling on the pastoral fields of prog was going to settle.

Like countless other prodigiously talented but abruptly irrelevant 70s acts, Genesis somehow had to renew themselves to get any sort of foothold – yet they couldn’t afford to jettison their existing fanbases. At this stage, all the ingredients are here – Collins’ soulboy competence, Rutherford’s simplistic hooks, Banks’ fearsome musicianship. However, as you note, they’re locked in silos, each strand manifesting on discrete tracks. Once they learned to fuse these elements, the power went up a notch (e.g. ‘Mama’). The exception here. as you say, is 'Turn It On Again', although much of its punch is due to the sheer unexpected energy of the performance.

But that still doesn't address the weird dissociative void at the heart of the music, which you highlight. The graphic makeover can’t hide the fact that this is a band with not much to say – and in 1980, that’s really not a good look. With Phil now saving the better stuff for solo albums, we’re left with his cast-off breakup whinges, Rutherford’s limply vague ‘political’ sentiments and Banks’ undimmed passion for lyrical fantasy. Really, we’ve not travelled that far from the lyrical personae and word-pictures upon which the group had been predicated in 1968. But even Gabriel himself, for all his sonic adventuring, would not truly drop the mask for another six years.

Because of my age when I heard it, I’ve always had a sneaking regard for Collins’ solo stuff. I know it’s bad, but I still like it. So the Rod Stewart comparison hits hard, as you can imagine. Intellectually, though, the point is incontestable. He’s right up there with Supertramp and Level 42 as a perfect car-stereo pick for people who don’t like music.